Divorce from the EU – What Lessons Can We Learn?

Shocked, angry, disappointed and afraid.

These are the words that I see posted around social media from most of my friends and peers today, as the UK wakes up to the news that we will be leaving the EU.

And of course there are those who are happy with the result.

But however we feel about the outcome of the vote, I think we must look at the quality of the dialogue on both sides, which has been less than poor. I wrote recently about my frustration with the way that politicians communicate. If you want to know how NOT to communicate in your relationship with your partner, just watch an episode of Newsnight. Whatever position each campaign took, both of them had these behaviours in common:-

  • Stonewalling – a shutting down of the other side and a complete failure to listen
  • Contempt – speaking to the other side from a position of superiority by undermining and devaluing everything the other side had to say
  • Criticism – attacking the other side by throwing sometimes very personal insults at them which were often completely unrelated to the issue at hand
  • Defensiveness – a complete inability to accept any critique from the other side or to admit that they might not have always made the right choices

Do you know what these four behavioural patterns are also known as in relationships? John Gottman, of the Gottman Institute, calls these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These behaviours are the indicators for divorce.

So I am grieving for what will now become the end of a relationship, as we start a long and messy international divorce. A divorce that 48% of us – including myself – didn’t want. All because the two campaigns did not communicate in an open and honest way.

But who, or what is to blame? Is it David Cameron’s fault for calling the referendum in the first place? Is it the leave campaign’s fault for being too persuasive or the remain campaign’s fault for being ineffectual? Or is it the voter’s fault for being ignorant, that we failed some sort of national IQ test?

I actually do not think it is the voters who are at “fault”. I come back to the quality of the dialogue between the two campaigns.

Rather than being open enough to listen to the other side, see the grain of truth or validity in the other’s point of view, to accept challenge, they instead traded “facts” which were automatically “disproved” by the opposition, or fired insults at each other in attack and defense mode. There was no acknowledgement that perhaps the facts were actually unknown and therefore not such an important part of the debate. That underneath all the so-called “facts” was the meaning of the debate – that this was really a vote on principle and feelings. Nobody engaged with the feelings of the general public, and asked us why we either wanted to leave or remain. Nobody really listened to the genuine concerns of the leave voters and addressed them. In a relationship, if one partner refuses to listen, the other partner feels isolated and angry, and sometimes walks out. This is what the leavers have done.

So I am left feeling shocked, angry, disappointed, and afraid.

Shocked – The 48 % of us who voted to remain in the EU are left reeling, struggling to get our heads around  how or why 52% of the UK population voted to leave. Because I believed so strongly that we should remain, and because most of my friends and peers had similar views to mine in that they wanted to remain in the EU, I  just assumed that this would be the outcome. Don’t get me wrong, I thought it might be close. But I just could not conceive that the majority would really vote to leave. It made no sense to me.

Angry – The anger is because we were made to have a referendum in the first place. Not because I am against democracy. Far from it. But because I really did not feel qualified to make such a monumental decision, and I really believe that the majority of the population were in a similar position. This is not because of a lack of intelligence. I believe the majority of voters really did try to understand what they were voting for and the implications of either leaving or remaining. Rather, it is because I believe there is a significant lack of political and economical education in the UK. And so we elect leaders to make these monumental decisions for us based on their knowledge. And instead we find ourselves in a position of vulnerability with unknown consequences.

Disappointed – Because I really, really wanted us to remain in the EU. And I feel this even more strongly now I know the reality – that we are leaving. And it’s an outcome I didn’t expect.

Afraid – I’m afraid of what now will be an inevitable change. Change is frightening. Particularly when we don’t know the outcome. I think most of us have no idea what the impact of leaving the EU is going to have on Britain economically, politically, culturally. Now the fallout will start. We also now risk Scotland having a second referendum and voting to leave the UK – the potential end of another long relationship. With a country split down the middle, will there be riots?

I cannot help but notice the similarity between these feelings, and those of the couples I see for Relationship Coaching. People are often shocked at their partner’s point of view if it is in opposition to theirs, finding it difficult to relate to, or make sense of, or empathise with. This is because we each have our own unique way of viewing the world, and we assume that our partner feels the same way that we do. Until we realise they don’t. (See my blog post – Relationship Misunderstandings and Why They Happen). People then become angry and disappointed with their partners for having a different view. They take it as a personal insult, saying things like “if you really loved me me then you would understand this and feel the same way”. They become afraid because they don’t know how to accept that they each have a different view, so they become emotionally aroused, stop thinking clearly, and go into black and white thinking. They start to try to convince each other that they are right and their partner is wrong. They move into blame.

Although I wanted to remain, I have nothing against those who voted to leave. I accept that my feelings on the matter were mine, and that others are perfectly entitled to theirs. I listened to both sides, and I cast my vote. But I feel cheated of having been able to make a well-informed decision.

So what can we do about it?

I think we must learn lessons from this, and I believe these lessons can be directly applied to our relationships. I think this only highlights the importance of effective communication, of resolving conflict in a rational, calm and compassionate way, leaving space for both sides to listen and see the validity in each other’s feelings. As a nation it has been irresponsible for us to have not done so. And in a relationship it is irresponsible to not do so. Because the results of not communicating effectively to resolve conflict, and have a meaningful dialogue, could be divisive and catastrophic.

So today, I am going to acknowledge these feelings, sit with them, and give them the space they deserve. I am going to go in to Nature and try to absorb some of its natural wisdom, compassion, empathy, openness, patience. And then I am going to turn these frustrations into even greater determination, to add fuel to my mission on this earth to help couples to connect on a deeper level, to have harmonious, balanced and respectful relationships built on communication, trust, compassion and empathy.


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